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The big picture: brutal intimacy on the streets of Tokyo | Photography

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Bruce Gilden, infamous for his up-close, flashgun New York street photography, visited Japan several times in the 1990s. His pictures of Tokyo, collected in a new book, Cherry Blossom, share the brutal intimacy of his Manhattan archive. His camera has always sought out and ambushed characters, hard men, broken souls, desperate women. “If you can’t smell the street,” he likes to say, “it’s not a street photograph.”

Many of his Japanese pictures are in the faces of Yakuza gangsters; one or two make you wonder how he lived to make the prints. Others go in search of people marginalised by Tokyo society: homeless drunks, ageing sex workers, teenage biker gangs. The man in this photograph is described as a “businessman at lunchtime”, though, reaching into his breast pocket, he seems to carry much of the threat and menace of the more overtly violent of Gilden’s subjects. The man in the foreground with the glasses seems caught up in the moment, along with the viewer; his tweedy hat and coat and the anxious cast of his jaw serve to emphasise the sharpness of the man with the stare.

The photographer has described how, as a boy in Brooklyn after the second world war, he grew up in the proximity of cruelty. His father was “a mafioso type”; his mother would take other men upstairs in the afternoons; she ended up taking her own life in a psychiatric hospital. Gilden’s photography, he suggests, has always been cathartic, a way of exorcising some of those demons, or fronting up to them. “I like very often when my subjects are looking in my direction,” he says of his snatched portraits, “because I like photographing people who have an intensity or something in the eyes that says something to the viewer.” Even, as here, if that message is: get your camera out of my face.

Cherry Blossom by Bruce Gilden is published by Thames and Hudson (£40)

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The Groucho

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